The Cars That Ate Paris

Thursday, 13 April 2017

by: Sacha Oerlemans

The City of Light surrendered its streets to the private automobile in the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, under siege from smog and traffic, Paris is leading some of Europe’s most aggressive efforts to fight back.

Extract from Citylab, written by Feargus O'Sullivan

Last September, the lower quays of central Paris’s two-tiered Seine embankment closed to all motorised vehicles, limiting motorists of the double-decked waterfront highway to the upper quay. Now, at 6 p.m., the upper quay is packed with cars creeping home to the suburbs—still moving, but in a viscous molasses-like flow rather than a steady stream.

Paris City Hall hasn’t shut down the quayside without good reason. The move is part of a concerted effort to reduce the number of private cars on its streets. Not only is Paris clearing cars from its quays, it’s banning the most heavily polluting vehicles from the city altogether, having created a system of shields detailing a vehicle’s age and emissions that all cars must display or face a fine. Already it has instigated alternate driving days or total driving bans during pollution peaks. Moving in from the river, Paris will slash the number of lanes on other major axes and turn whole neighborhoods into car-calmed, pedestrian- and bike-dominated zones. It is already in the process of redesigning seven major squares to reduce vehicle lanes and parking while increasing pedestrian space and greenery.

These are the kinds of measures you’ve been hearing about for years from bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen (metropolitan population 1.28 million). But Paris is different: It’s a vast metropolitan region with over 11 million inhabitants who are frequently, albeit not exclusively connected by a network of car-intensive arteries. On this scale, this kind of automotive regulation is something entirely new—and impressively strident.

Paris is doing all this because it needs to. The French capital’s reputation for beauty and charm may still be repeated to the point of cliché, but during the 1960s and ‘70s, this city—like so many others—was profoundly reshaped by car-centric planning. The postwar automotive boom turned the city’s quiet avenues into gasoline-filled arteries, flattening historic buildings and throttling the city core with a beltway that has become a byword for congestion and pollution. That inner Paris survived this onslaught in largely good visual shape is remarkable.

Equally remarkable is the fact that Paris has managed to muster a political movement limiting the future role of cars. It’s a fightback that authorities in London or New York would no doubt struggle to replicate. The story of how Paris let cars eat it away—and then bit back—is worth a closer look.

“Under the Cobblestones, the Beach”

That the streets of Paris have become a contentious issue should come as no surprise. In few other major cities have the streets been a more central political flashpoint.

The very look of modern Paris itself was created by a desire to control the street plan—and the people who used it. Baron Haussmann’s massive demolition and rebuilding campaign on the mid-19th century eliminated the crooked medieval alleys and created a city of broad boulevards; one justification was that wider streets were harder to barricade, thus reducing the risk of popular insurrection against the state.

Haussmann’s new streets have nonetheless been barricaded many times—in 1870 during the Paris Commune, during the 1944 Liberation of Paris, and during the Events of May 1968, when left-wing demonstrations and general strikes ground the city to a halt.

Linking car policies to revolution may seem like a stretch, but there are clear echoes. The barricades of 1968 sought to sabotage both the role of the streets as sites for through traffic and the state control that the street plan represented. Classic 1968 slogans such as “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“under the cobblestones, the beach!”) suggest that stripping away urban infrastructure could also liberate citizens from social control, allowing a freer, more carefree mode of life to (re)emerge.